Carne Asada Tacos

Dean Knuth / Arizona Daily Star file photo

Tucson's first Taco Festival gets under way this Saturday at Rillito Downs. Before I proclaim the tonsorial virtues of the humble taco, I wish to point out Rillito Downs used to be known as Rillito Ups until the economy weakened.

Rillito Downs is a historic racetrack that hosts thoroughbred and quarter-horse racing. I enjoy watching thoroughbreds but I prefer the quarter horse because the quarter horse is one-fourth of a dollar horse, which in these times is ideal if you're on a tight budget.

And there's no better crunch for your coin than a golden taco.

Tucson is proud of its Mexican-American cuisine. When President Clinton visited Tucson in 1999 he dined at Mi Nidito. It was a historic moment for South Tucson because it marked the first time a guest didn't have to wait in line for a month and a half to get a table at Mi Nidito. When asked about the fine ethnic dishes, Clinton bit his lip and said to the reporter, "Those waitresses are fine all right. Muy fantástico, amigo."

The story of the taco is muy fantástico, también, mis amigos. It's a fantastic story that begins long ago. Will we travel back to the time when you first came in and told the hostess you didn't have a reservation and you sat down? No, my friend, even farther back in time.

Taco scholar Professor Bernardo Diaz Jones writes, "the taco predated the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico." And as you know, predating someone is a hassle when you consider that dating alone costs a fortune these days, if you include a movie with dinner. One can see how predating is out of the question save for the most inventive indigenous peoples. It was the Aztecs who accepted the challenge, inventing the taco and enduring for centuries because they had money left over for popcorn and a soda.

The Spanish arrived shortly after dinner and chaos ensued. Abundant documentation suggests the Spanish were late due to flight delays. This challenges the long-held "sea monsters living at the edge of the world" theory that many favored. You try fitting lances, armor and a cannon into an overhead bin. After a long flight we're all edgy, aren't we? In that context the craving for tacos and a little genocidal carnage across the breadth of the hemisphere makes sense.

Spanish missionaries celebrating St. Bono, who is credited with having miraculously remembered to bring guacamole to a picnic in Damascus, hosted the first recorded taco feast. The diarist wrote that "The native peoples appeared at 4:30 and said they had made reservations for 4,000. We told them there'd be a short wait." According to Father Francisco Domingo, "These beautiful people have welcomed us into their strange land with foods the likes of which I have never seen. I ordered the Taco Grande Supreme."

Tacos were introduced into our region in 1528 when a cook named Juan Vasquez converted a broken down coach into a taco wagon. Vasquez followed Coronado's famous expedition up the Santa Cruz Valley. In a letter to the King of Spain, Coronado commends the taco wagon and coins a phrase when he calls it "a worthy roach coach." By the time the Franciscan missionaries arrived all of the tacos were gone. This led to tensions between Spain and the Vatican. The tensions were catered for half a century by Sonoran hot-dog vendors who drove out the pro-taco faction and Vasquez's wagon was lost to history. But the term "roach coach" endured.

Many New World explorers continued to search for a fabled "Seven Tacos of Gold," including fray Marcos de Niza, who is said to have stumbled upon a Taco Bell after months of searching. He killed himself in despair.

Taco shells are made of corn or wheat tortillas that are fried and set in upright office files to cool. Then one simply stuffs the taco with fillings until you are ashamed of your gluttony.

A taco is often accompanied by a garnish. Some may disagree with me, but a taco accompanied by a soprano will always disappoint. Taco aficionados love to stuff the shell with guacamole, sour cream, cilantro, shredded cheese and an entire head of lettuce using a shoehorn and a mallet.

My favorite garnish is the tomato-based hot sauce called salsa. For you newcomers the word "salsa" is a Latin word referring to the dance your tongue does when it is on fire, running in circles while it's chained to the back of your mouth screaming "my tastes buds are burning" like Yosemite Sam. To refresh your palate after such an incident, try Pepto-Bismol with a quick shot of fire-extinguisher foam to the back of your throat. I was surprised at the sublime aftertaste.

Happy crunching, taco fans.